Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, I have ADHD – lucky YOU!
Romance and ADHD are compatible bedfellows in many ways. People with ADHD are often considered to be especially creative, optimistic, warm, and empathic. Blogger and podcaster Eleanor Turner, co-host of the Restless Minds podcast discusses all things ADHD and relationships.
Disclaimer: Everyone with ADHD experiences the condition differently and uniquely. Moreover, the different subtypes of ADHD (inattentive and/or hyperactive/impulsive) present different symptoms and have produced differing outcomes in studies. This article is a general overview of some of the struggles typically experienced by people with ADHD, but will not be applicable to all people with the condition.
Valentine’s Day has been and gone and, whether it filled you with dread, joy, or indifference, it’s likely that romance has crossed your mind recently.
For many people, dating, sex, and romance are wonderful, yet often frustrating, parts of modern life. This is especially true for people with ADHD; research suggests that adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder endure a higher rate of short-lived, chaotic and unharmonious romantic relationships.  Cupid, where are you?
Before we explore why this might be, let’s first acknowledge the amazing, yet often overlooked, characteristics possessed by ADHD-ers.
Why it’s great to love someone with ADHD:
Romance and ADHD are compatible bedfellows in many ways. People with ADHD are often considered to be especially creative, optimistic, warm, and empathic. Did your ADHD partner forget your birthday? Maybe. But did they also impulsively buy you all your favorite foods on a random day of the week? Probably.
Dating someone with ADHD introduces you to their world of optimism, enthusiasm, and, probably, mess. Yes, there might be snack packets on the bedroom floor or an overflowing washing basket, but the animated and spirited nature of ADHD-ers is both magical and refreshing – I can’t count the number of times people have complimented me on my openness and how it encouraged them to do the same.
Of course, lacking a filter due to ADHD can be problematic at times, but the sincerity and unreservedness of people with ADHD, hand in hand with our lack of judgment and accepting nature, provides the perfect environment for fostering a deep and genuine interpersonal bond.
The positives don’t end there. International ADHD experts canvassed in one 2015 study reported that ADHD individuals are often seen to be “lively and dynamic” and “exciting and fun to have around” as well as flexible, resilient, and creative. When it comes to interacting with those around them, ADHD-ers “were generally described as being sociable, caring, sensitive to the moods and feelings of others as well as loyal, noble and altruistic”. Other sources note the “zany sense of humor”, intuition, and “warm hearted and generous behavior” often exhibited in people with the condition. Sounds like perfect boyfriend/girlfriend material, right?
If you’re someone who wants passion, you’re in the right place – research conducted in 2021 found that people with ADHD may actually experience passionate love more intensely than the average person – possibly due to the emotional dysregulation dimension of ADHD. The impulsive element of ADHD also lends itself to being fiery and intense, and so it’s not surprising that studies have described ADHD-ers as people who “listen to their hearts or follow their instincts no matter what ”.
Why then do people with ADHD statistically experience shorter-term, chaotic and unharmonious relationships? Evidently, it’s not for lack of love!
Common Struggles Faced by People With ADHD & Their Partners in Relationships:
Please note: The following struggles are likely to be more profound in people with undiagnosed/ unmanaged ADHD. Speak with your care provider about ADHD treatment options, including relationship-specific advice.
1. Need for Novelty
People with ADHD can’t experience pleasure as easily as people without the condition. Why this is, and what causes ADHD more generally, is unknown. Research suggests it may be linked, amongst others, to ADHD brains having an imbalance of certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine – the chemical responsible for pleasure and motivation.
Whatever the reason, people with ADHD commonly report feeling chronically under-stimulated – by which I mean the opposite of engaged, interested, or present. Dictionary synonyms for stimulated include ‘restorative’, ‘tonic’, ‘invigorating’ and ‘restoring’ and so, as you can imagine, under-stimulation feels draining, gloomy, tiring, and dull. In my experience, I have often felt zoned out and bored to an extent that is physically uncomfortable, as if I have an itch inside my brain that I cannot scratch. The world seems gray and I feel restless, dissatisfied, and agitated – sometimes for hours at a time.
As a result, people with ADHD seek out more stimulating behaviors, which to others may appear ‘risky’ or ‘extreme’, in order to feel the same level of stimulation a neurotypical person naturally enjoys. As explained by Hallowell and Ratey, “[for people with ADHD] high stimulation becomes a biological necessity to feel fully engaged and alive”.
This is why impulsive, dopamine-boosting decisions are commonly made by individuals with ADHD, such as drinking, making a large shopping purchase, or starting an argument with their partner. Such acts are not done to upset anyone else or cause alarm – instead, the person with ADHD is merely trying to snap themselves out of the unbearable hole of under-stimulation. Naturally, however, such ‘reckless’ behaviors are likely to cause discordance in romantic relationships.
Moreover, this need for the new and exciting to feel balanced and ‘normal’ is somewhat inconsistent with feeling fulfilled in a stable relationship. As Hallowell and Ratey explain, “once the thrill of a relationship has settled into something a bit more mature, the person with ADD may simply go back to their regular habit of living off high stimulation.” Routine and repeated behaviors, such as making dinner together and watching a boxset, may quickly become mundane for the ADHD-er, leading them to question the relationship or seek out more impulsive activities elsewhere. While the individual with ADHD may crave a stable, long-term, and loving relationship, their ADHD symptoms (when untreated) may inhibit them from truly enjoying it.
One of the biggest struggles of having ADHD is the way in which it interferes with executive functioning, making it more difficult to activate yourself to work, to sustain focus, regulate emotions, utilize working memory and monitor impulsiveness. As a result, the forgetfulness, disorganization, distractibility, messiness, and emotional inconsistency which often plagues people with ADHD can drive partners away. If undiagnosed or misunderstood, such symptoms of the condition may be translated by significant others as laziness and lack of care.
Distractibility appears to have the biggest negative impact on relationships – studies have found that the most negative reactions in the partners of ADHD-ers are sparked by ADHD inattentive symptoms compared to hyperactive symptoms. Inattentive individuals may be perceived to be unassertive, self-absorbed, and uninterested, leading their significant others to feel rejected.
In practice, I can see why, from the outside, such a conclusion would be drawn. Before my diagnosis and subsequent use of ADHD medication, I would frequently be late for dates, pack for holidays at the last minute, leave a trail of mess behind me and forget important details my partner had told me. I would zone out of conversations despite my efforts to stay present – my focus was like a car that had hit an icy patch: no matter how much I tried to steer it back into the lane, it would spin out into different, unpredictable places beyond my control.
Sadly, no amount of love for your partner nor desire to ‘do better’ will mitigate the strength of ADHD symptoms. Struggling to maintain focus and be present can even happen during sex, leading the ADHD partner to feel guilt, shame, and a lack of connection to their lover.
A 2002 study echoes these frustrations. Spouses of people with ADHD complained that their partner “doesn’t respond when spoken to”, “leaves a mess”, “doesn’t remember being told things”, “takes out their frustrations on me [the spouse]”, “pays bills late” and “can’t get things done unless there is an absolute deadline”.
The last two definitely ring a bell for me. ADHD can include time blindness i.e not knowing what the time is now and/or having a skewed sense of how quickly time is passing and/or how long something will take. People with ADHD often explain time as taking only two forms: “now” or “not now”. For example, let’s say I am going on holiday tomorrow at 6am. If it’s 11pm right now, that’s not 6 am is it, so I don’t need to pack yet! At least, that’s how my brain explains it while my exasperated partner looks at me pleadingly as I hyperfocus on a jigsaw, the bed strewn with belongings.
Essentially, people with ADHD find it hard and/or unnecessary to activate to do something until it is imminent or an ‘emergency’ – this is one of the reasons why people with ADHD thrive in chaotic and fast-paced work environments – making us excellent paramedics but not so excellent co-travelers. Moreover, while hyperfocus itself is often seen as a ‘superpower’ of ADHD, it hits us randomly, leaving our loved one confused as to why we aren’t able to maintain a shared routine or consistently engage with them. Meanwhile, the ADHD partner may feel irritated by the ‘nagging’ demands and well-meant reminders of their significant other.
3. Emotional dysregulation
People with ADHD can struggle to manage the expression of their emotions as well as identify what they’re feeling in the first place. This is made more difficult by the fact that having ADHD can sometimes feel like being on an emotional rollercoaster – before medication, I would experience a myriad of emotions throughout the day, in quick succession. The fluctuating nature of my internal world was confusing for partners – 15 stressed and upset texts about a work issue might soon be forgotten, replaced by a stream of excited messages about a podcast I’ve just listened to.
On the other hand, research also suggests that it can be harder for people with ADHD to ‘move on’ from their present emotion. As Thomas E Brown explains, “sometimes the working memory impairments of ADHD allow a momentary emotion to become too strong; the person is flooded with one emotion and unable to attend to other emotions, facts, and memories relevant to that immediate situation.” This can be especially problematic if an ADHD partner experiences Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD). Commonly found in people with ADHD, RSD is an intense emotional sensitivity prompted by perceived, or real, rejection or criticism. RSD can leave you feeling emotionally bruised and battered by a loved one as a result of a minor, or misconstrued, comment or action.
In my experience, RSD leads to total emotional shut down for around five to ten minutes – I can’t look at or touch my partner and need to retreat to calm down. Before I knew this had a name, it caused much distress to us both – especially in circumstances where they viewed my RSD response as entirely disproportionate. Often, it was – but that was out of my control. Thankfully, understanding what RSD is and why it happens is the first step towards managing it, both together and individually.
ADHD can also make it harder to cope with frustration. Researchers have argued that, on a biological level, ADHD seems to create a state where anger, frustration, and aggression are inadequately internally regulated. As a result, people with ADHD commonly struggle with low frustration tolerance, meaning something as simple as having to stop at a red light or wait in a queue might trigger intense irritability, exhausting and stressing both parties out as a result.
So, what can be done?
The main thing to remember is that ADHD is a condition that is highly treatable and symptom management techniques are highly adaptable to the individual. Even just reading this article and therefore deepening your understanding of how ADHD plays a role in relationships is an excellent starting point.
Diagnosis is a great step towards treatment and management – something which can transform an ADHD-ers life, including their relationships, for the better. Thomas E Brown illustrates this in his book Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind In Children And Adults with an example of a couple he worked with: “When he [the ADHD-er] began appropriate medication treatment, the husband experienced dramatic, rapid improvement in many of his ADD symptoms. This did not suddenly resolve all the couples’ marital problems, but it created and sustained conditions under which they were able gradually to work out a very different, more reciprocal style of relationship.” Diagnosis can create access to evidence-based treatments recommended by healthcare professionals, and may also prompt the individual to learn more about ADHD and how to manage it – thereby creating more opportunities for them to address the impact of their symptoms.
Ultimately, the key to nourishing a healthy relationship with someone with ADHD is to make space for ADHD in the relationship.
So, whether you’re the person with ADHD or the person who loves them, don’t give up on love!
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